Imperial Democracy and Colonial Expansion, 1890-1945


Imperial Democracy and Colonial Expansion, 1890-1945

Unit Introduction.

For this teaching module we will define Imperial Japan in three main ways. First, Japan’s political system during the years between 1890 and 1945 was defined by the Meiji Constitution, which placed sovereignty with the Emperor rather than the people. With the source of authority emanating from the imperial throne, the Japanese elites responsible for administering the state managed a government in the name of the Emperor for the people—not of the people or by the people.

Over time, the Japanese people slowly but increasingly called for a government responsive to their needs and concerns that would allow them not only a say in state policy but expanded participation in the government itself. Thus, secondly, we can define the social system that developed during this time period as imperial in the sense that elevating the Emperor above all others in theory gave all citizens the right to the same economic, social, and political opportunities. Japanese people of all social classes attempted to improve their lives materially and voiced their concerns more directly to government representatives, who in turn worked to expand the electorate in order to increase popular participation in the formation of state policy. One scholar has referred to this period as a time of “imperial democracy.”

Finally, we shall also define Imperial Japan in the more traditional sense of its imperialist expansion onto the Asian continent and out into the Pacific Ocean. During this time period, out of strategic concerns, the Japanese government pursued economic growth, and in an attempt to draw closer to Western levels of overall national development, engaged in foreign military adventures that eventually led much of the Japanese government and many Japanese people to identify their national interests with that of other imperialists, rather than the imperialized (those Asian and Pacific peoples whose resources Western and subsequently Japanese imperialists developed and then exploited for their own benefit).

Unit Goals.

  1. Students will be able to describe reasons why the political transition of the Japanese state from its Meiji founders to its Taisho and early Showa successors was a time of ambiguity and uncertainty accompanied by significant political and social challenges;
  2. Students will be able to list major attempts by Japanese people from all social classes to achieve not only government recognition of their concerns but also greater participation in Japanese political life and in Japanese society, as well as demonstrating their understanding of the pluralistic and often chaotic nature of these attempts; and
  3. Students will be able to articulate that the gradual, evolutionary nature of Japan’s imperialist expansion beginning in the 1890s was due to strategic and security concerns rather than a premeditated, pragmatic attempt to rule first Asia and then the world.

Key Unit Concept.

In Imperial Japan, changing political and social conditions were interdependent forces that operated on both international and national levels.

Essential Unit Questions.

(These can also be used as prompts for summative essay assessments)

  1. How do domestic social and political issues affect foreign policy?
  2. How did the growth of mass media during this period affect society and politics?
  3. To what extent was public discourse during this period monopolized by nationalist thinking?
  4. What responsibility do citizens bear for the foreign policies of their government?

Summative Unit Activity/Assessment.

In a cogently written essay, answer the following question: What are the essential political, social and foreign policy issues that characterize Imperial Japan?


Theme,History; Topic,History-Modern; Theme,Imperial Japan; Type,Lesson Plan; Historical Period,Meiji (1868-1912); Grade Level,Secondary; Historical Period,Showa (1926-1989); Subject Area,Social Studies; Historical Period,Taisho (1912-1926); Topic,War & Conflict;
Meiji, Taisho, Showa, imperial Japan, war, government